Why “spreading” should be the new “scaling"

Rethinking the way we scale impact: our lessons learnt and why we are changing our model.

Have you ever thought of something that seemed so obvious to you, and yet it wasn’t already there? That happened to us in 2019 when we were about to start Snowball Effect.

Indeed, we could not understand why the best local solutions were not yet replicated elsewhere in the world.


More precisely, the paradox we saw was that:

  • On the one hand, outstanding social/environmental innovations were not scaling fast enough. Although these pressing challenges need to be solved urgently at scale.

  • On the other hand, aspiring social entrepreneurs were reinventing the wheel. They were starting their own initiative without learning from those who had successfully launched similar projects before.

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It was, even more, a paradox that the answer seemed obvious and easy. It would only take aspiring social entrepreneurs to replicate these proven solutions! They could get started but not from scratch, while proven solutions would scale in a much cheaper and faster way.


That’s how we launched Snowball Effect.

And here we are now, three years down the road.

So, what have we done so far? What have we learnt?


If we wanted to share with you only the bright side of things, we’d tell you about the accomplishments and achievements we’ve done so far (see below).



But if we are writing this article today, it is rather to share the hard things we learnt over those years. Because it took us almost three years during which we navigated in the dark with very little data, to finally understand the main reasons why proven social enterprises were not spreading their impact as fast as they’d need to.

Thus, we thought sharing our perspectives and insights would be beneficial for a number of ecosystem partners.



Why proven social enterprises do NOT spread their impact faster?


Before we dive in, let’s first introduce the basics.


What kind of “proven social enterprises”* are we talking about?


By “proven social enterprises”, we mean social enterprises that have a proven

social and/or environmental impact and a proven business model, enabling the teams to make a living with it. In addition, they are projects that are replicable and with a strong local component (local production, local delivery, local community). They cannot be replicated easily across the world only using technology (an app typically doesn’t scale across borders in the same way a zero waste store does).


Why would such proven social enterprises need to spread fast?

According to many scientific reports (among which IPPC report 2022), a radical

social and environmental transition needs to occur at a global level by 2030 to avoid a disaster.


A way to make this transition happen

is by fostering the spread and replication of existing social enterprises tackling these challenges. They need to become the norm within the next 10 years.





Now, let’s get back to our main question.


Why are they not spreading fast enough?


Our main answer to this critical question is: only one scaling model (brand replication, where an organisation scales its brand) is known and massively adopted, although it’s not the model that enables the fastest spread.

When thinking about scaling their impact, social entrepreneurs tend to think “scaling my brand”. Because replicating a brand by opening offices or franchises abroad is the most common model we all have in mind.

But there are other ways to scale your impact. For instance, they could also empower others to do a similar project elsewhere, in which case they spread the concept instead of the brand.


The problem with replicating the brand is that it is NOT the model that enables the fastest spread. There are three main reasons why (find all the detailed information in this article).


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In a nutshell:

  • It takes 2-5 years for a social enterprise to structure everything internally to be ready to scale with a centralized/franchise model.

  • There are not many entrepreneurs who are interested in such a partnership (97% of them want more flexibility and freedom than what those models allow).

  • The chances of a successful replication in that framework are very low (lots of things regarding the market fit or human fit are out of control).


To sum up, it takes an average of five years to set up a scaling model that will attract only 3% of your target partners/entrepreneurs, among which 1% will succeed.

​Read our article dedicated to this topic for more details: “3 big mistakes to avoid for social entrepreneurs looking to scale their impact fast”.

What if there was another way?


So, could there be a faster way to spread proven solutions?


In our humble opinion, we’d say it is by enabling knowledge transfer and replicating concepts instead of brands.


How to do that?

  • The first easy option is to foster knowledge transfer by documenting the work done (articles, videos, podcasts, etc.) and providing one-off mentoring sessions between the initial teams behind the proven concepts and aspiring social entrepreneurs.

  • A more structured long-lasting option is to set up an “affiliation” model. It is not as strict as a brand replication, not as loose as an open source one, but something in the middle.


The Affiliation model enables an organisation to scale its impact:

  • By empowering replicators to reproduce the concept through knowledge sharing, access to other available resources (CRM, Website…), etc.

  • While enabling a high degree of local adaptation by giving them enough flexibility, as they can replicate the concept but can create their own strategy, brand, legal entity, etc.


In other words, they have a formal partnership where new “replicators” become part of a federation/network, where all the members are committed to achieving the same goals with the same impact vision.


Some social enterprises have adopted this model. For instance, Skateistan launched the GoodPush Alliance, la Cloche launched the Chime, Cycling without Age has its own network of affiliates, and the same goes for Points of Light.


However, this model is still kept under the radar and there’s still a lot to invent in the area.

For instance, who is to say we cannot build an interesting revenue model related to the affiliation model? The initial teams could charge a fee to deliver training/mentoring sessions. Or more boldly, we could imagine a system where each organisation contributes to a common pot, which could fund new innovative and collaborative projects. Or else, the multiplied impact generated by the whole network could also be financially valued and funded by either foundations or public institutions (with mechanisms such as social impact bonds, etc.)



In fact, there could be as many versions of affiliation models as possible. In this new area, there’s plenty of room to innovate and create. Be the pioneers!





Philanthropists, foundations, public institutions: the key role you could play!


Because of its pioneering character, this promising model is sadly underfunded today.


The time needed to structure this model, build the federation, onboard the organisations, support the replicated initiatives, and so on is rarely funded today. Hence, despite their interest and willingness to do it, scaling in such a way with limited funding can hardly become a priority for the founding teams. Especially given the difficult context in which they have been evolving in the past years (COVID-19, economic crises, financial volatility, war, etc.) They’d naturally prioritize their core activities to stay afloat or new funded activities.


Indeed, the usual third-party bodies who mostly fund centralized or franchise types scaling models (investors) do not necessarily find a financial return on investment with this scaling model. They do not consider it, even though the multiplied impact generated by replications could be something to value and claim. To this extent, some impact investors are pioneering in the field and are funding some first projects. However, most funders remain shy and we’d need other funders to show the way.


New funders should jump in the ring and dedicate specific funding mechanisms to this.
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Indeed, there is no doubt such a model enables the fast spread of impact-proven solutions while increasing local employment and a more dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem. Philanthropists, foundations, public institutions: show the way! And if you don't know who/how, we have plenty of opportunities for you. Please reach out!


What does it mean for Snowball Effect?


With the learning mentioned above and in this article, we are convinced the fastest way to spread proven solutions at the local level is by proactively empowering aspiring social entrepreneurs to replicate concepts (and not necessarily brands).


As we saw previously, enabling knowledge transfer and one-off mentoring sessions is an efficient way to start spreading powerful concepts. In a more structured way, the affiliation model gives the perfect middle ground by giving enough support to avoid starting from scratch while providing enough flexibility for adaptation.


This is why we are shifting our focus to “concept replication”.

Providing an easy way in for aspiring entrepreneurs to replicate proven concepts


To solve concrete social/environmental problems locally, we are running a new program (the "Replication Challenge") where:

  • Local public institutions present concrete local social/environmental problems to solve;

  • Aspiring social entrepreneurs are given a portfolio of ideas and proven concepts to choose from to get inspired by;

  • They run a market assessment to see how they can adapt the project locally, with the support of our training materials and mentors;

  • The winning teams are supported both by the initial teams (through mentoring sessions) and by the Snowball Effect team (training materials & coaching sessions) to launch their projects!

If you’d like to run this program with us and/or know people who’d be interested, feel free to reach out. We are looking for as much support as we can to massively spread proven solutions worldwide!


> Raising awareness on “Concept-replication” and supporting social enterprises to reinvent the way they scale impact.


As mentioned above, letting other entrepreneurs replicate a concept (instead of a brand) is the most powerful way to spread impactful initiatives worldwide.


Besides, there are many benefits for diverse stakeholders:

  • Initial teams: they are recognized as the reference leader/pioneer in this field as others want to learn from them, they get allies (rather than competitors) and can get extra revenues from it.

  • Entrepreneurs who replicate: they learn from those who did it before, and do not reinvent the wheel while having enough flexibility and autonomy to adapt the project to their local environments.

  • Society & economy at large: local social/environmental issues are solved, new jobs in sustainability fields are created, more bridges are established from one territory to another, and knowledge is not lost but capitalised on and transferred instead.


We believe it is part of our mission to bring some light to this promising yet unknown model. That is why we intend to produce more content providing in-depth analysis and illustrations/case studies of organisations which massively scaled on an Affiliation model.


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